There was nothing quite like Sanford and Son when it first came on the air in 1972.
For starters, there had been very few sitcoms starring black actors at this point. Beulah aired from 1950 to 1953, starring Ethel Waters, who quit after a year. Hattie McDaniel was then cast, but she became sick after filming six episodes, which weren’t aired for awhile. Louise Beavers stepped in the role, but then she became ill, and the Hattie McDaniel episodes aired. With casting changes like that, it’s kind of easy to see why Beulah didn’t last too long.
Amos ‘n’ Andy aired from 1951 to 1953, a TV sitcom based on the hugely popular radio series, which began airing in 1928 (starring white actors) and aired throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Julia came on the scene in 1968, starring Diahann Carroll, as a nurse, which lasted until 1971.
The Bill Cosby Show ran from 1969 to 1971. Cosby played a high school gym teacher. The series was a modest hit, but nothing like his series in the 1980s.
And that, in a nutshell, is the all too short history of sitcoms starring black actors up to 1972.
Sanford and Son was revolutionary for a lot of reasons. Fred Sanford and his son, Lamont, were fully realized human beings that everybody could relate to. That’s not to take away from the roles by black actors in sitcoms that came before them. But Ms. Carroll’s Julia Baker, for instance, was a role model, somebody anyone should aspire to be. The Sanfords had a lot of admirable qualities (Lamont’s affection and love for his dad, and Fred’s for his son, while not as evident in the beginning, really shines through in this series), but they were relatable to just about anyone.
Like much of their television audience across the country, these were two people trying to eke out an existence like everybody else.
It was also a very funny show.
Moreover, as it featured a father and son running a junkyard in a part of town that had seen better days, it was a show that offered a lot of financial tips since Fred and Lamont were always trying to scrape by.
I’m not saying that these are always deep monetary lessons in Sanford and Son, but you can find some gems, and I think one of the best examples comes in the episode, “The Big Party,” which aired in 1973.
SETTING THE SCENE OF “THE BIG PARTY.”
So Fred and Lamont are trying to pay bills for their salvage yard, and things are not going well.
“We’ve got 30 bucks between us, and we’ve got bills here that total over $200,” Lamont says. He adds that they’d be better off if Fred and his pal, Bubba, hadn’t bet money at the racetrack.
Fred says that he sees the race track money as investment, albeit one that didn’t pay off, and he suggests that they sell the best thing they have in the junkyard.
“The best thing we got in the yard is a bathtub with a ring around it,” Lamont says.
“Well, let’s pawn the ring,” Fred says.
“That’s right. Make jokes. But we’re in trouble. We’re in big trouble.”
Lamont thinks that they should ask for an extension from their creditors, the gas, electric and heat.
“If we can get an extension, if we can get two weeks, we’ll be all right,” Lamont says.
Fred has a different idea. And as money making ideas go, it’s not a bad one.
Still, Lamont’s is the sensible one, and as somebody who had to ask for an extension from utility companies many times in the past – as a full-time writer, I’ve had my share of lean days – I can tell you that it’s a good strategy.
But Fred’s plan is, interesting…
NEED MONEY? THROW A PARTY
Fred Sanford suggest that they throw a party and charge admission at the door and sell everybody food and drinks.
Lamont points out that his father never liked relying on charities to help him.
“How’s it charity?” Fred wonders. “I’m giving them something for their money – food and drink.”
Lamont isn’t won over, and he wonders how his father will buy the food and drinks that they will need to sell.
“Didn’t you say we had $30 between us?” Fred asks. “Do you know much pigs feet, potato salad and beer you can buy with $30? You can buy enough stuff to keep a whole houseful of people belching the whole weekend.”
So naturally, Lamont gives in – partly because when they do ask for an extension, and the phone company cuts off their service. They host a big party and make some very good money, and in fact, they do so well that two bad guys show up and suggest that they keep the party going.
“What we propose to you,” one of them says, “is that you use the junk business in front as a dodge.”
The police, in other words, will see a respectable business, but inside, customers can drink and gamble and cavort.
“I knew this party thing wasn’t going to work out,” Lamont later laments to his pop. “You and your moneymaking schemes.”
But the thing is, it ends up working out. Long story made short, Esther – Fred’s sister-in-law and Lamont’s aunt – saves the day. She pretty much chases off the gangsters when she and her Bible study group come to the house to hold a meeting. Meanwhile, when the party dies down, Fred and Lamont count the money they’ve raised and manage to pay off the gas, electric and phone company.
They even have $40 left over.
HOW FRED CAME UP WITH BIG PARTY IDEA
If Fred Sanford’s idea for raising money seems kind of ingenious, he may have gotten it from his own life experience… or he just had a good handle on 20th century American history.
Early in the episode, he says to Lamont, “We invite a bunch of people, charge admission on the door, and sell ‘em some food and drinks. You know, like the old Harlem rent parties.”
Indeed, that was a thing, and not something the scriptwriters, Odie Hawkins, and Aaron Ruben, conjured up.
During the 1920s, rent parties started popping up in Harlem, and it’s easy to see why. There was a lot of demand for a decent place to live, and so the rents were high, and many of the black residences in Harlem weren’t making big bucks.
Sometimes people would struggle to pay the rent, and so this was kind of a way to get a lot of people to chip in for your rent, but as Fred says, you are giving them something back in return.
It’s a trend that went on throughout the 1930s, when the Great Depression raged on, and these rent parties went on, into at least the 1940s.
During the roaring ‘20s, particularly, these parties became really big deals, a time when Fred Sanford would have been a little kid (Redd Foxx was born in 1922). The people organizing the parties would even print out business cards, with the rent party details, though the cards never or rarely stated why the party was being held, and pass them out around the neighborhood. Soon, you’d have dozens, if not hundreds, of people showing up. Many of these parties even had live entertainment, often a drummer, piano player and a saxophone who would be hired for the party.
Which just goes to prove that old adage that you really do have to spend money to make money.
Why rent parties died out is probably due to a lot of factors. The parties generally always featured alcohol, and when Prohibition ended, the reason for attending these parties somewhat faded away. World War II also became a distraction, to put it mildly. People also started realizing they could save money if they played records instead of hiring musicians, which was true, but it’s a lot less fun to go listen to music than see musicians perform. So parties were likely less attended, and profitable, once that began happening.
It’s also possible that people started to recognize that just inviting anybody into your home, complete strangers, might have some bad consequences. In fact, I have found some articles from the 1920s and 1930s referencing parties that spiraled into directions that the original rent party organizers never intended. Teenage girls were sometimes lured to these parties, plied with liquor, and then as The New York Times ominously put it in a 1935 article, “left as easy prey for strange men.”
Still, rent parties were a clever idea – and fun for many people while they lasted.
Nowadays, it’s definitely safer and easier to turn to social media or crowdsourcing websites like GoFundMe when you have a financial problem, but I think a lot of us would rather support a good cause by paying a few bucks, eating some tasty food, and hanging out with Mr. Sanford and son